young tribe member creates a learning program using old recordings
of the native language
Kyle McHenry stood in front of the elders of his Mechoopda Maidu
tribe and played for them a program he'd created of their native
language this summer, tears came to their eyes.
"There are no native speakers,"
he said. "It was worth all the work that I did just to see
the look on their faces. They haven't heard it since they were
One of the elders he spoke to was his
grandmother, Delores McHenry.
"My grandfather was fluent in the
language," Delores explained. "But he could not pass it
on to my dad because Bidwell wasn't letting them speak the
So Koyoongkawi, the Mechoopda dialect,
could have been lost forever. But for young tribe members like Kyle,
preserving traditions like language are extremely important.
Imagine trying to resurrect a dead language.
Sure, Latin is still taught in some schools, although it is no longer
used in the world. But what about a language that was traditionally
not written so there are no texts or old letters to refer to and
nobody who is alive can pass along the vocabulary and grammar because
nobody still speaks it.
Herein lay the challenge for McHenry,
a 23-year-old studying at Haskell Indian Nations University, a Native
American school in Kansas. Like other young people in his tribe,
he's fascinated with cultural traditions. One of those traditions
he feared would be lost forever was Koyoongkawi. The only real reference
material the tribe had to it was in recordings made in the 1940s
of then-elder Emma Cooper.
"She was born by Upper Park," McHenry
said via phone. "She was one of the last people to leave her village."
Cooper was in her 80s when the U.S. Department
of Defense interviewed her at length about Koyoongkawi, having her
repeat the words for such things as animals, people, places, anatomy
and directions in her native tongue. The intent was to use the language
as code during radio broadcasts during World War II. The war ended
before that plan could be realized.
With these recordings, McHenry undertook
the massive challenge of transferring them to digital format and
then converting them into a tool for teaching. The recordings included
some 579 words, and the entire project took McHenry more than 120
hours to complete.
"Where we come from is everything,"
McHenry said. "The language explains different things about
the land, the culture, who we are. If nobody learns now it will
be gone forever," said McHenry, who hopes to return to Chico
when he graduates in the spring. "It was a gift, and we should
keep it and cherish it."
The program, which he has dubbed Niseki
Wehweh, meaning "Our Talk" in Koyoongkawi, is on the librarian's
computer at the Mechoopda office on Mission Ranch Boulevard. Each
group of words animals, anatomy, etc. is in its own folder
and corresponds with a visual. So, when a picture of a bear pops
up on the screen, it is accompanied by the audio of Cooper saying
the Koyoongkawi word for bear four times so the listener has time
to hear it and repeat it with her.
As soon as the tribe has copyrighted Niseki
Wehweh, it will be available to all tribe members. There are even
several iPod Nanos the tribe will lend out with the program already
uploaded, so all they have to do is watch and listen.
For older tribe members like Delores McHenry,
the Mechoopda's identity lies in the hands of the younger generation.
"It's very sad that we've
lost our language, but the kids will bring it back," she said
confidently. "Kyle is really doing a great service to us."
The younger McHenry clearly sees the value
in older traditions. Having grown up near Reno, Nev., he moved to
Chico a few years ago to attend Butte College and be closer to his
extended family. His artwork pottery, paintings, etc. are
scattered about the Mechoopda office. It was evident during a recent
visit that other members appreciate the effort he puts into preserving
After two years of working with Koyoongkawi,
McHenry says he has the vocabulary of a 2-year-old, and it's
still difficult for him to form sentences. He's confident,
however, that his generation and those younger will be
able to revive their native language.
"Without our language, we're
not our people yet. When that comes back, it'll just be I
can't put it into words," Delores said. "Listening
to him speak, it threw us way back in time to when we all spoke
it. You can't imagine hearing your language being spoken it's
like a miracle."